WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Snow Angels opens with a high school band mangling Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” No sooner has the band director delivered an unintentionally hilarious pep talk to his red-faced musicians than practice is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Is this is the handiwork of a disgruntled student? Green leaves hanging us in suspense--or at least that’s his intention--when he turns back the clock several weeks to chronicle the beginning of the winter of marital discontent in Butler Penn. Arthur (Sky High’s Michael Angarano) the band’s trombonist is hardly shocked to when his mother (Jeanetta Arnette) announces that his father (Griffin Dunne) is moving out. Across town Arthur’s ex-babysitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale) tries to maintain a civil relationship with her estranged husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell) for the sake of their young daughter. Glenn tired to kill himself when Annie left him but now he’s on the rocky road to recovery with the help of his newfound faith in God. He even hopes to reconcile with Annie. But everything turns sour when Glenn discovers Annie is sleeping with her best friend’s husband (Amy Sedaris and Nicky Katt). Arthur who still harbors a crush on Annie suddenly attracts the attention of the new girl in school Lila (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby). Just as things finally seem to be going right for Arthur an accident occurs that brings life in the close-knit community of Butler to a screeching halt. And it’s not hard to deduce at this point how and why things rapidly turn nasty. Put the offbeat Rockwell in a dark comedy à la Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and all is fine. But his quirky mannerisms and scenery chewing do not sit well in a serious and sober study of the human condition. So in Snow Angels he stands out like a streaker traipsing through a blizzard. Initially he’s loud and irritating when he should be attempting to earn Glenn a modicum of sympathy. Then as Glenn loses everything he holds dear Rockwell falls into the trap of turning the sad sack into your typical Bible-thumping looney tune. Beckinsale though maintains a hushed dignity about her as she agonizingly expresses the fears and frustrations that come with being a newly single mother. We know Beckinsale kicks werewolf butt just fine. But Snow Angels proves she’s able to convincingly play an ordinary woman--especially one prone to making many life-altering mistakes--grappling with everyday problems. This is her Monster's Ball. Angarano shuffles through Snow Angels looking dazed and confused which is what he’s required to do as the perpetually puzzled Arthur. But he does rise to the occasion when Arthur finally releases his pent-up emotions. If Arthur’s an open book Lila’s a mystery. But Thirlby makes her sweetly affable rather than completely impenetrable. Dunne and Arnette are so grating as one couple in crisis that you just want to shake them out of their middle-aged malaise. Sedaris and Katt provide Snow Angels with its few moments of levity but the latter also reveals a ferocity we’re not seen before from the Strangers with Candy funny lady. By remaining faithful to the novel’s opening David Gordon Green wants a sense of dread to permeate every moment leading up to Snow Angels’ disturbing climax. While this is indeed the case Green still should have ditched this flash-forward. The result: you quickly ID the shooter and the victim and you’re left waiting for the inevitable to occur. Even the catastrophic event that serves as the shooting’s catalyst is telegraphed too far in advance. But because Green turns the screws so tightly the instance the tragedy strikes Snow Angels manages to overcome all anticipation of its violent conclusion. What follows is a harrowing depiction of one preventable tragedy leading to another. To this end Green ensures that we become so emotionally invested in the characters in question that even knowing their intertwined fates doesn’t diminish the shock of what’s to come. Part of this stems from Green skillfully comparing and contrasting the three rocky marriages at the heart of Snow Angels which allows us to identify not just with the estranged couples but with the loved ones they inadvertently hurt as ttheir lives fall apart. On the flipside there’s much joy and optimism to be found in the romance between high school geeks Arthur and Lila. In that regards Snow Angels is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is an intimate portrait of the brokenhearted desperate to heal their wounds. If only we didn’t know so soon that it would end so bloodily.